State House committee passes bill to change attorney contracts

By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press

Mississippi House Republicans are moving forward with efforts to limit the attorney general’s power to hire private attorneys to file lawsuits for the state.

Attorney General Jim Hood is the only Democrat remaining in statewide elected office, and he opposes their efforts.

A bill that passed the House Judiciary A Committee on Monday says any statewide elected official or appointed agency head could hire private attorneys if they think the attorney general’s office can’t provide sufficient legal representation.

House Bill 211 also says agency heads must approve any lawsuits filed on behalf of their programs – a provision that could’ve blocked past lawsuits in which a Democratic attorney general and a Republican governor had strong differences of opinion.

The bill is expected to come up for debate in the full House this week. It passed the committee along party lines, with Republicans supporting it and Democrats opposing it.

Hood said the proposal could cost the state more than $11 million a year. He said he bases that on the $65-an-hour rate for attorneys who are employed by the attorney general’s office and work for state agencies, compared to the $130-an-hour rate he said is on the low end of the scale paid to private attorneys.

Some private law firms in Mississippi have lost business in the past decade because of limits legislators put on awards in civil lawsuits.

“If they get ahold of a case now, they don’t want to settle it because they want to suck it dry for all the money that they can get,” Hood said. “So you’re talking about a lot of money that’s going to be spent on lawyers when it’s not necessary.”

State Auditor Stacey Pickering, a Republican, said there should be no new cost because state agencies would work within their existing annual budgets to hire private attorneys.

Republicans have wanted for years to limit the attorney general’s ability to hire private lawyers. Previous bills have passed the Republican-controlled Senate and died in what was then a Democrat-controlled House. Republicans won control of the House this past November, and the bill’s chief sponsor is the new Republican speaker of the House, Philip Gunn of Clinton.

In the mid-1990s, then-Attorney General Mike Moore, a Democrat, used private attorneys to sue tobacco companies on behalf of the Division of Medicaid to recover the state’s costs of treating sick smokers. The Medicaid director is appointed by the governor, and then-Gov. Kirk Fordice, a Republican, opposed Moore’s lawsuit, saying it was simply a way to enrich Moore’s friends and campaign donors.

In 2011, a Rankin County chancery judge ruled in favor of Hood’s office in a lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies over the average wholesale price of drugs in the Medicaid program. Hood used private attorneys, including former Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, in the lawsuit. Musgrove now works for the Copeland, Cook, Taylor and Bush law firm in Ridgeland.

Rep. Bob Evans, D-Monticello, on Monday distributed copies of a November 2010 letter written to Musgrove by Russell Latino, an attorney for the Wells Marble law firm in Ridgeland – the same law firm where Gunn works. In the letter, Latino said Wells Marble had been contacted by the Division of Medicaid, which wanted to retain private counsel “to represent and protect its distinct interest” in the drug-pricing lawsuit.

Responding to reporters’ questions, Gunn said he is not a partner in Wells Marble and does not share in the firm’s profits; he said he is an hourly employee of the firm.

Gunn also said he was not involved with the letter Latino wrote about the drug-pricing case.